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Why It's Barkov's Time to Win the Lady Byng

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

It's time for Aleksander Barkov to start clearing some space on his mantle.

For the third time in his career, the Florida Panthers captain will be packing up his suit and tie and making the almost 6,000-mile journey from his native Finland to Las Vegas with hopes of bringing home the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy at the 2019 NHL Awards on Wednesday.

A prestigious accolade that recognizes a player's demeanor as well as their on-ice domination, the trophy, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, has been given out annually since 1924-25 to the skater "adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."

If that doesn't describe Barkov to a T, I don't know what does.

Video: MTL@FLA: Barkov goes between the legs for second goal

A perennial contender for the award, the superstar's name is already synonymous with the Lady Byng, even though he's yet to claim it. A three-time finalist over his first six NHL seasons, he was runner-up in 2015-16 and finished third in 2017-18. If you're wondering about his lack of a nomination in 2016-17, that was likely due to injuries limiting him to only 61 games.

So why should this finally be the year Barkov gets his hands on the Lady Byng?

Well, let's take a look at his competition.

First, you've got center Ryan O'Reilly, fresh off leading the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for him, those post-season accomplishments don't factor into these awards, so neither his Conn Smythe Trophy nor exceptional playoff beard were a factor among voters.

Also nominated for the Selke Trophy - an award Barkov likely just missed the cut on - O'Reilly matched his career-high goal total (28) and set new highs in assists (49) and points (77) while also being recognized as one of the league's top-defensive forwards. Like Barkov, he balanced that defense with exceptional discipline, taking only six minor penalties for 12 penalty minutes.

Over the final 79 games of the season, O'Reilly, 28, was whistled for just three penalties.

Joining Barkov as a finalist for the Lady Byng last season, O'Reilly previously won the award in 2013-14, when he posted one penalty over 80 games as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

Next up, we have Sean Monahan, who hails from a Calgary Flames team that's produced a pair of recent Lady Byng winners in Johnny Gaudreau (2016-17) and Jiri Hudler (2014-2015). A first-time finalist, the 24-year-old forward reached new career-highs in goals (34) and points (82) this season, while also managing to incur just six minor penalties for a total of 12 penalty minutes.

Clearly, both O'Reilly and Monahan are worthy of being finalists, but we're here to tell you why Barkov should bring home the hardware.

Establishing his Lady Byng campaign from the get-go, the 23-year-old took no penalties through his first 33 games of the season and went on to be flagged for a grand total of four, giving him eight minutes in the box - an unfamiliar area he likely still needs directions to get to.

Of those four penalties, two (a hook and a trip) came during a three-game span in March.

Known around the league as an elite two-way pivot, Barkov also had by far best offensive season among this year's Lady Byng finalists. Setting new career-highs in goals (35) and assists (61), the former second-overall draft pick's 96 points set a new franchise record for single-season points, surpassing a storied mark set by Hall of Famer Pavel Bure in 1999-00.

Video: NJD@FLA: Barkov scores to set new Panthers record

"He's phenomenal," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said when asked about Barkov in February. "I've never met anybody with that much skill - period."

In terms of playstyle, O'Reilly and Barkov faced similar challenges on a nightly basis. They were both tasked with shutting down opponent's top lines and logged major minutes in the process. In the end, Barkov's 1,833:01 of ice time ranked second among NHL forwards, while O'Reilly had the 13th-most (1,702:13). Monahan, meanwhile, was fairly far behind at 48th overall (1,486:16).

Now, let's look at the equation for what picking a Lady Byng winner should be on paper:

High Points + Low Penalty Minutes + Character = Winner

Looking at the first two variables, it's impossible not to give Barkov the nod for both. Among the three finalists, he scored the most goals, posted the most points and was flagged for the fewest penalty minutes, all while seeing the most ice time among the three against elite competition.

While having two of those three variables locked down should be good enough to win the award on their own, it's important to also take a look at character, or what the award prefers to describe as "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct." Honestly, this the trickiest part of the equation as those qualities aren't necessarily something can often be found on a stat sheet.

You see, if you put all of this year's finalists in a room, it would almost be impossible to say with any sort of certainty that one is a better sportsman or has higher character than the other. If they find themselves as a finalist for the award, it's safe to say they're very good, reputable players.

That said, Barkov should receive a few bonus points for how he handled himself this season.

Named the 10th captain in franchise history in September, Barkov grew as a leader and never lost his cool while leading the Panthers through an up-and-down season. Even with the weight of a newly stitched "C" on his jersey feeling heavy at times, he always set a shining example.

"At the beginning, I was kind of excited and a little bit too nervous like, 'What should I do? Should I be yelling all the time or what?" Barkov said of feeling out his captaincy. "But then I just realized that I just had to be myself and try to lead by example.

"Of course, when there is a place for something to be said, I'll say something. Troch [Trocheck] and Yands [Keith Yandle] and all the other leaders in the room, they helped me a lot. I just tried to be myself like I was before, but I grew up a lot this year."

So, that's my case for why Barkov should capture this year's Lady Byng.

Will voters agree? Tune into NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday night to find out.

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